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Perspectives on World War II 'Big Three' Leaders' Decisions

THIS weighty volume is not a history of World War II, but it is a careful and well-researched study of the relations among the three men whose combined strategies shaped ultimate victory in the biggest war of all time. Its value lies in the details of the context within which each of the three made the big decisions of peace or war.We see Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, shocked by the unexpected fall of France in 1940 and the fear that Britain, too, might be defeated - wanting to help Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but not daring to respond immediately and favorably to Churchill's request for the 50 destroyers needed to prevent a possible German attempt to cross the English Channel. Roosevelt had to wait until he was reelected before he dared to offer the destroyers in return for use of British bases and for the assurance that the British Navy would never fall into German hands. Soon after concluding the deal, he asked Congress for the funds that made it possible for the British to continue getting the weapons they needed from American factories after their own funds ran out. Robin Edmonds, author of three earlier books about the Soviets, Americans, and British, is a retired British foreign service officer who at one time was head of the Northern (Soviet Union) Department, and at another time was head of the American Department. He reads and speaks Russian fluently and had access to the Soviet archival material, which became available only recently as part of glasnost. Much of the material in this book is familiar, but the organization of it around the relations of the three Allied war leaders gives the story new perspective. I lived through the war and covered it as a reporter, but I had not appreciated at the time nor from my previous reading how desperately close Britain came to defeat in 1940, and the Soviet Union in 1941. When Roosevelt and Churchill were bargaining over the destroyers deal, both were thinking of the possibility of a successful German invasion of the British Isles. They talked about where the British royal family would be sent, and Churchill had already sent the Duke of Windsor to Jamaica to keep him out of harm's way. For Roosevelt, a much greater concern was whether the British government would leave Britain and continue the war from the British Dominions and Colonies, taking the Royal Navy with it. The war, when seen through the words of the three Allied leaders, was a much more closely run thing than we who were there knew at the time. The firmness and consistency of Roosevelt's desire to resist German and Japanese expansionism emerges with fresh clarity from the pages of this book. From the very beginnings of the war, Roosevelt was giving Britain and the Soviet Union all the help that evolving United States opinion would allow. He has been accused of not moving as fast as public opinion would permit. My own sense from reading Edmonds's book is that he was leading public opinion as fast as was politically tolerable. Republicans who have long alleged that Roosevelt deliberately maneuvered to get the US into World War II will find in this admirable overview much confirmation of their main thesis, but not of their favorite theory of how it was done. In Republican mythology, Roosevelt deliberately withheld from his commanders in Hawaii vital intelligence information that would have alerted them in ample time to meet the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. There has never been any solid evidence of this. On the contrary, warnings were ample, but understanding of the warnings was lacking at both Navy and Army command posts in Honolulu. What is true is that Roosevelt's handling of American relations with Japan during the summer of 1941 caused the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. The question is whether Roosevelt's policy toward Japan during the fateful months before the attack was deliberately intended to get the US into the war. There is no absolute evidence that this is the case, but one man who watched the play with particular care and interest and was unusually qualified to have an opinion believed that it may well have been deliber ate. That particular person was Sir Robert Craigie, British ambassador to Tokyo in 1941, who came home after Pearl Harbor and wrote a report. There was no doubt in his mind that the US at that time provoked Japan to war, either through blunder or intent. And there is no doubt that when Churchill read the Craigie report he was horrified and issued an order that it be buried. The fact is that Roosevelt began waging economic warfare against Japan in June of 1941 with an initial blocking of some oil shipments to Japan. After the Japanese invaded Indochina on July 25, a virtual embargo on oil and scrap metal was in force. In August, Churchill had his first meeting of the war with Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland and jointly signed an "Atlantic Charter." From then on the US was protecting shipments to Britain with the US Atlantic fleet and waging full economic warfare against Japan. The US was in the war in every respect except for shooting. We learn in the book that Churchill and Roosevelt met knowingly for the first time at Placentia Bay. They had actually met once during World War I, but neither remembered tha t earlier meeting. All three great men had to learn about each other in the process of running the war. This is primarily a work of perspective. It would be particularly helpful to someone coming fresh to a study of World War II. There is a useful chronology in the back. It has excellent footnotes and a good index.